FAIRFIELD, IA. - Matt Stutzman's first bow was stolen.
He was only 16, and he'd just started figuring out how accurate he could be with the state-of-the-art weapon, when some thief decided he or she needed it more than Stutzman did.
Buying a new bow wasn't feasible. Stutzman needed to work odd jobs around his Kalona home to afford the bow in the first place.
Stutzman, being a typical teenager, moved on to other pursuits - soccer, football, learning to drive. Eventually, he married, fathered two children and took a job selling cars.
Then archery set its sights on him.
It's hard to imagine an athlete with a more improbable rise to the top of his sport. But 2½ years after picking up another bow, Stutzman - who doesn't have arms - is on his way to London to represent his country as a gold-medal contender in archery at the Paralympic Games.
"I think I'm gifted. Always growing up, I could shoot guns really well," said Stutzman, now 29. "It's my eyesight. I could hit a penny at 50 yards with open sights and my .22. I just thought that was natural. I've always had a gift for aiming and shooting things."
Causing a stir in the world of archery
What Stutzman really wanted to shoot was deer.
After a decade away from archery, he bought a bow because that hunting season lasts longer - plus, it gave him the chance to get more venison for his family.
When January rolled around, however, and the ground was covered with snow, Stutzman and a hunting buddy grew bored.
On a whim, they decided to head to Mason City for the archery tournament that changed Stutzman's life.
Stutzman finished in the middle of the pack of about 550 archers.
But he was the talk of the tournament from the minute he arrived and started shooting.
Everyone could see what Stutzman was born without: arms.
Soon, they discovered what he was born with: an innate talent and drive to be the best.
"When I walked in, everybody was like, 'Who's that guy?'" Stutzman recalled. "Then the media showed up, and I was kind of nervous because I didn't know what was going on. I mean, I just showed up to have fun, and all of a sudden, people were coming up to me offering me sponsorship deals. And I'm like, 'What is this? I'm just a bow-hunter. I like to hunt.'"
One of the leading bow manufacturers, Mathews Bows, was among the first to see the potential in Stutzman, who quickly signed on. Then he found out about the Paralympic Games, and that London was hosting them in August 2012.
Stutzman returned home and started training eight hours a day. He entered tournaments from Ottumwa to Las Vegas in order to gauge himself against the competition.
"I think my eye-foot coordination is key," Stutzman said. "I use my feet for everything, and I have good eyesight.
"I think that the way I do shoot has its advantages because, for one, I use my leg to hold the bow. Well, my legs are stronger than most people's arms. So I can hold more weight. I can hold it steadier for longer periods of time."
Stutzman uses his teeth to draw his arrow while steadying the bow with his right foot. He perfected his unique technique so quickly that by March 2011, just 14 months after that Mason City tournament, he was asked to try out for the national team. He put up the best score, and has been a full-time archer since.
When he first started, Stutzman relied on local sponsors, such as Dickey Transport of Packwood, that would give him a little money in exchange for a logo on the back of his shirt. Once he made the national team, the big boys came calling, as did the international media.
Stutzman appears in ads as a member of the BP Olympic team (Des Moines hurdler Lolo Jones was in those ads, too). And last month, a German film crew traveled to Fairfield for documentary about him. It was his third interview with a German media outlet, making him the David Hasselhoff of archery.
"I have no idea why I'm so big over there," said Stutzman, who is not of German heritage and doesn't speak the language. "I just got an email that they ran the thing in China, too. So, internationally, my story goes way more places than it does in the U.S."
Stutzman joked that if he ever did go to Germany, "I'm going to have to take, like, a bodyguard or something."
Learning to live with a disability
Stutzman was born in Kansas City in December 1982 and quickly put up for adoption. Leon and Jean Stutzman answered the call, bringing him at age 13 months to Kalona, where he became one of eight children.
Matt Stutzman said his parents refused to modify things around the farmhouse to make it easier for him, reasoning that he needed to learn how to maneuver around the outside world.
Stutzman adapted quickly, learning to tie his own shoes, to drive tractors and trucks on the farm, to shoot a gun and to kick a football.
"I accepted my disability right away because my parents said, 'No matter what happens, they're not going to grow back,'" Stutzman said."'So you can sit around and you can mope about it, or you can complain about it and just be miserable, or you can make good on what you've got and just live life and enjoy it.' So that's what I decided to do from the beginning."
His current house in Fairfield - which he shares with wife, Amber, and sons, Carter, 6, Cameron, 5, and the newest addition, 2-month-old Alex - also is not modified to make things easier for Stutzman.
It does have a makeshift archery range out back, and it is there that Stutzman shoots about three hours a day, concentrating on his breathing or visualization as much as his aim.
All the training came together for Stutzman in April at the Paralympic Trials in Chula Vista, Calif.
"I knew that everybody can shoot good, and I knew anybody could win," he said. "I just quit worrying about them. I took my own car so I could kind of isolate myself from everybody, so I could just focus."
It worked. The trials lasted three days, but Stutzman was so on target that he could have stopped at the end of the second and still qualified. He ended up breaking two national records and missed the world record of 700 by a single point.
Stutzman is one of seven U.S. archers heading to the Paralympic Games, which begin Wednesday and use many of the same venues as the recently completed London Olympics. His wife and parents will be there at the Royal Artillery Barracks rooting for him.
On his website, Stutzman refers to himself as the "Armless Archer." It would be just as accurate, given his impromptu entry to the sport, to call him the "Accidental Archer."
But it's clear that this is a culmination of a dream for him.
"Growing up without arms, your friends go and they represent America, they join the military, and they get to defend the country. And there's always a little bit of you that wants to represent America," Stutzman said.
"And I knew I couldn't. So when I got this opportunity, I was just like, 'Hey, I'm doing my part.' It's unbelievable to think that I'm getting to do this."
BY: Mark Emmert/Des Moines Register